The New England Patriots tried their best to upgrade their wide receiver room over the last two seasons. They drafted N’Keal Harry in the first round in 2019 and later that same year acquired Antonio Brown and Mohamed Sanu via free agency and trade, respectively; they also brought in Damiere Byrd last year. They tried, but they failed.
With the exception of Harry, who himself appears to be on thin ice, all of the other high-profile additions are no longer with the organization. As a result, the Patriots again had to make some big investments this year by signing unrestricted free agents Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. Despite those moves, however, there is realistic a chance that they are not yet done making splashes at wide receiver.
But if they really want to make a big one, there is no better place than the draft.
Name: DeVonta Smith
Position: Wide receiver
School: Alabama (Senior)
Opening day age: 22
2020 stats: 13 games (13 starts); 145 targets, 117 catches, 1,856 receiving yards, 23 receiving touchdown
Size: 6002, 170 lbs, 78 1/4 wingspan, 31 1/8 arm, 9 1/4 hand
Workout numbers: N/A
Expected round: 1st (Top-15)
Strengths: Let’s just get this out of the way early: DeVonta Smith is an incredible football player and would make every team in the league better. He has everything you would want from a starting Z-receiver at the NFL level. His ball skills and his ability to track the football while in the air are outstanding. He has also shown the ability to win contested catches down the field, and that he can haul in passes that are thrown outside of his frame or force him to adjust mid-air.
Smith’s fluidity out of his stance is nothing short of impressive. His quickness allows him to get open in an instant even when facing aggressive press-man cornerbacks. He also is as smooth a route runner as there is in the draft, and rarely wastes any steps in his breaks or double moves. Smith does not look like he wastes any effort playing against top-tier opposition. He also is a threat with the ball in his hands. While he will not run you over, he will avoid your tackle attempts if they are not technically sound or too aggressive.
On top of it all, he posted some insane production in the best conference in college football. His 2020 stat-line was out of this world and earned him the Heisman Trophy, but he also was productive in his first three seasons in Tuscaloosa as well albeit at a smaller scale (he still went 68-1,256-14 in 2019, for example). Smith’s development was gradual and saw him grow into a bona fide number one wide receiver for the Crimson Tide
Weaknesses: They don’t call Smith the “Slim Reaper” for nothing: his size does not stand out and raises questions about how he will fit in versus NFL-caliber competition. Will he be durable enough at 175 pounds? How successful will he be as an early-down blocker in the running game? Will his elite quickness and footwork still allow him to win against press-man at the next level? Will adding to his frame have a negative effect on his agility? What about his good but not high-end straight-line speed?
Why the Patriots? With the exception of the short-term rentals that were Brandin Cooks and Antonio Brown, the Patriots have not had an elite athletic talent like Smith in their wide receiver room since the days of Randy Moss. He would instantly make the group a better one and in turn would give the team a cost-effective long-term option to groom alongside whoever the next starting quarterback in 2021 and beyond will be.
Why not the Patriots? If the Patriots decide to bring Smith in they highly likely will not get one of the top-tier quarterbacks in this year’s draft. He will command the 15th overall pick or maybe even a trade up the board, and New England might not be willing to make this sacrifice given that the drop-off between the first and second tier wide receivers is not as big as that between the fifth of the top-five QBs (fellow Alabama prospect Mac Jones) and the next group of passers.
What would be his role in New England in 2021? Even though Smith played as an X-receiver at Alabama he best projects to be used in the Z-role in New England. While the team might decide to use him in specific packages to help his learning curve, he has the talent to become an instant difference-maker and top-three wideout in the offense. Ideally, the Patriots would use Smith as the Z in their three-receiver packages with Nelson Agholor as the X and Kendrick Bourne in the slot.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? Given that Agholor and Bourne are both projected to stay with the Patriots in 2022 as well, Smith’s role would likely not change. However, he would likely become a close-to-100-percent player: he would rarely leave the field regardless of situation. In the best case, he would develop into a true number one option in the offense and the go-to guy for whoever will play quarterback in New England next season and beyond.
Does he have positional versatility? While he does not have the same versatility as, say, Julian Edelman, Smith fits in well with what the Patriots are doing at their wide receiver position: he is capable of aligning both as an X on the line or a Z off it. He could also be used on misdirection or other running plays to take advantage of his elusiveness.
What is his special teams value? Smith brings some experience in the kicking game to the table. He returned four kickoffs for 52 yards and 11 punts for 237 yards and a touchdown — all of which in the 2020 season. He also played gunner on punt coverage teams earlier in his career. Realistically, however, he will only be used in a limited fashion in the game’s third phase especially once he becomes a full-time starter.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Smith would be a surefire lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster for at least the first two seasons of his career, and likely beyond. When it comes to playing time shares, however, he might compete against fellow Z-type receivers such as Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and Isaiah Zuber. Given that he is by far the most talented out of the bunch, and that Bourne and Meyers could be used in the slot as well, Smith should be able to secure a prominent role quickly.
Verdict: Smith is an impressive wide receiver prospect, and one of the elite talents this draft has to offer. Yes, he does not fit the prototypical size requirements of a number one wide receiver, but he has learned to play around those minor limitations: his elite quickness at the line of scrimmage as well as advanced route-running and ball-tracking skills make him a blue-chip prospect. Unless the Patriots are able to get their quarterback in Round 1, they would not make a mistake by picking Smith. He is that good.